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Canadian school's admittance to NCAA may change rules up north

Kyle Johnson was a junior guard at West Hill Collegiate Institute, a public high school in eastern Toronto, when he started to make plans to play college basketball in the United States "because Canadian schools don't give full-ride scholarships."

"I wanted to go to university for free and play basketball while doing so," Johnson added.

After a standout career at West Hill and for the Toronto Mission AAU team, Johnson gained NCAA academic clearance in August 2007 and matriculated to Long Island University in Brooklyn, N.Y., that fall. As a sophomore this past season he was the Blackbirds' second-leading scorer with 13.8 points per game. Johnson explains that there's more exposure and better competition in the U.S., too, but the primary attraction was the full scholarship, which is why last year he was one of 77 Canadians who played NCAA Division I basketball (out of 143 Canadians playing all divisions of NCAA hoops), based on lists compiled by TSN and Canada Basketball.

Such has been the dilemma of all of Canada's top high school athletes. Go to America, where there's better competition, more exposure and a potentially free education; or stay in Canada, which is closer to home but a pricier option, as Canadian Interuniversity Sport, the northern version of the NCAA, limits athletic scholarships to tuition and fees (CIS grants don't include room and board).

A new option emerged on July 10, when the NCAA's Division II admitted its first non-U.S. school, Simon Fraser in Burnaby, B.C., for a transitional period with the ability to become a full member in 2012-13. Division II made the decision to geographically balance its membership, particularly in the West generally and in the Northwest for football. For now, neither Division I nor Division III is considering opening its membership internationally, and with only a handful of Canadian schools considering Division II, the concept of a North American Collegiate Athletic Association is far-fetched.

For Simon Fraser the appeal was better competition, full scholarships and, oddly, geography. Playing competition along the Pacific Coast against closer, albeit American, rivals is more accessible than opponents over the Rocky Mountains into Alberta and the eastern provinces. From the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, four of the nine schools in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference -- SFU's expected home in Division II -- are within two hours driving time. That proximity to the border is why Simon Fraser has already been playing a number of its sports teams in the predominantly America NAIA, even winning the Director's Cup, which is awarded to the best overall program, six times since 1997.

"We're doing more to promote Canada by playing in the United States than we ever do up here," said Dr. David Murphy, SFU's athletic director.

No one expects a mass exodus of Canadian universities to the U.S.; only one other school has publicly declared its interest. The University of British Columbia, which actually petitioned the NCAA for Canadian members in the first place, has openly discussed applying to Division II if it can find a home for its hockey programs (the sport is not sponsored in D-II). "We'd like to give Canadian student-athletes the NCAA experience but have them stay at a Canadian school," athletic director Bob Philip said.

There are a few logistic hurdles, though none are insurmountable. Canadian schools joining the NCAA will have to apply for American academic accreditation and comply with Title IX, an American law. Canadian athletes will forfeit their fifth year of eligibility and have to be mindful of the more comprehensive NCAA qualifying process, which includes evaluations of coursework done in ninth and 10th grades, unlike the CIS process that focuses on 11th and 12th grades. American athletes will all need to get a passport, which, as of June 1, is required for all border crossings.

Simon Fraser's southward migration is already forcing the CIS to reevaluate its practice of prohibiting full athletic scholarships. Noting the different athletic culture, in which college sports in Canada don't draw the same crowds, interest or television contracts that they do in the U.S., CIS president Clint Hamilton says matching the scholarship allotment of NCAA's Division I isn't possible, but increasing scholarship dollars -- and offering at least a few full rides to blue-chip recruits -- is under consideration. About 1,500 Canadians are playing for U.S. colleges, including many of the country's top recruits.

"We want to be the destination of choice for top Canadian student-athletes," said Hamilton, who is also the athletic director at the University of Victoria. "The NCAA decision is an important catalyst for us."

Such a move could have at least a small impact on U.S. college athletics, particularly in sports like basketball in which Canadian schools aren't so far behind the NCAA's elite. Most coaches and athletic directors consider Canada's best teams to be the equivalent of low- to mid-level Division I schools, an evaluation supported by the recent track record of international exhibition games. Carleton, which has won six of the past seven CIS national titles, went 4-3 against U.S. competition last fall, beating such schools as Buffalo and Northeastern, while losing to Kansas by one and Cincinnati by 10. St. Francis Xavier, which won CIS titles in 2000 and '01, defeated Bryant and trailed Boston College by only three at halftime, before getting blown out in the second half.

Ro Russell has been running the Toronto-based Grassroots Canada AAU program for 18 years and before that coached Canadian high school basketball. He knows firsthand what talent his country can produce, as his AAU team scored a milestone victory at the Adidas Super 64 tournament in July 2008. He describes Canadian basketball players as "Americanized internationals," a mix of the athletic, freer form American game with the fundamentals of international hoops.

Little of that talent remains north of the 49th parallel. Russell estimates that 80 to 90 percent of his players go to American schools on Division I scholarships. Of the remaining 10 to 20 percent, a few stay in Canada but most go to Division II, NAIA or junior colleges, where they can still get full rides.

"A lot of kids' families can't afford [to attend school in Canada]," Russell said, "and they don't want to take out sizable student loans, so they end up going to the States."

Then again, Russell guesses that, even if the CIS offers larger scholarships, some 70 to 80 percent of his AAU players would still go to U.S. for the competition and exposure. The States-bound track has long been used for blue-chip recruits like Tristan Thompson, a senior from Toronto who attends Findlay Prep in Nevada and is a University of Texas commitment who played on Russell's Grassroots Canada team, and unheralded players in search of greener pastures, like Steve Nash, the Suns' point guard and two-time NBA MVP, who was so unknown at St. Michael's high school in Victoria, B.C., that he accepted the only D-I scholarship offered to him, from Santa Clara.

Not everyone, however, sees what the big fuss is about. Count Steve Konchalski, the "Coach K of Canada," in that group. In 34 years as head coach of St. Francis Xavier, Konchalski, a native of Elmhurst, N.Y., has won 727 games (seven fewer than the CIS record) and three national championships leading the X-Men, from the town of 4,236 in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. A standout player at Archbishop Molly High in Queens, N.Y., he played at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, winning a CIS title in 1965. A major perk of playing for a Canadian school, says Konchalski, is the ability to contend for a national championship, a more realistic goal to the north where only 43 CIS schools field a basketball team.

"Frankly I'm a little puzzled by it, by [Simon Fraser] entering Division II," Konchalski said. "Are they entering Division II with the intention of eventually moving to Division I? Speaking from a perspective of basketball, our top 15 schools in the country can pretty much play at a low Division I level, so why would you want to sell the farm, so to speak, to go play Division II?

"If you're going to do it, [the target] should be Division I, not Division II. If you're going to leave your country, go to the top league."

Konchalski, now a dual citizen, spent 20 years coaching the Canadian national team (four years as head coach, 16 as an assistant), including participating in the 1976, '84 and '88 Olympics.

"If I had stayed in New York, I'd have been watching those Olympics on TV," said Konchalski, who remains a consultant to Team Canada and traveled to New Zealand earlier this summer with the junior national team. "There's a lot to be said for Canadian kids staying in Canada. So many Canadian kids who go to the U.S. are blinded by the scholarship, and they end up sitting on the bench for three or four years."

Konchalski estimates that 90 percent of CIS coaches are in favor of full scholarships, though he notes the burden of fundraising would fall to the coaches themselves. As it is, he says the St. Francis Xavier athletic budget includes enough to give his team three tuition scholarships, but the rest of the grant is derived from his efforts. He adds that, while the X-Men are annually competitive in the CIS, having the resources to compete in NCAA Division I "would never be a reality for us." At least some of the Canadian interest in the NCAA has to do with dissatisfaction at home.

"For schools that want to be progressive and want to emphasize excellence in our programs, sometimes the CIS can be frustrating because they won't let you take that next step, to take your entire program to the next competitive level," he said. "Some of this looking to the U.S. is a backlash of frustration from schools that want to have high-profile athletic programs but feel restricted by the CIS."

That said, Konchalski is quick to say that he'd prefer reform at home to a departure across the border.

"I don't think the answer is to run to the U.S.," he said.

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